on who we are and what we do

A while ago I uploaded a video I made onto social media, a speed drawing of a Turkish Janissary soldier. Most of the views were (unsurprisingly) from Turkish viewers, and while the vast, vast majority appreciated it, and were touchingly… touched by the interest I showed in their history, one incident did stick in my mind: one Turkish viewer, a complete stranger over the internet, was so incensed by what I’d drawn that he felt justified cussing me out – me, a complete stranger over the internet – because he felt mortally offended by a silly line drawing, which in the words of another viewer, ‘looks like shit.’

What the gentleman was mad about was this, I discovered – and I say ‘discovered’ because it should be noted that the man cussed me out in his own language, and either he was unaware or simply didn’t care that I wouldn’t understand. So I got it translated, and discovered this: apparently the man thought I had drawn an Arab soldier and mislabelled him as Turkish, hence the cussing.

That is the sum total of what I’d done to merit his fury.

When I looked at some of the stuff this man himself had uploaded onto social media, as well as what his friends uploaded, I understood a bit more. They are kind of way into nationalism: lots and lots and lots of photos of Atatürk (the George Washington of modern Turkey) and other Turkish heroes, but also angry-looking slogans, a lot of scary stuff.

A very wise friend of mine once compared nationalism to religion. You are part of something greater; you look to a rather nebulous, ethereal higher being / concept for meaning and salvation (in this case your country, whatever that means); your sense of inborn identity is used to justify your superiority over outsiders; and you are entitled to be mortally offended by any slights to your god – in this case your country. I have to say, I think he’s onto something – and no, I don’t think Turks are uniquely guilty of this; Americans are stereotypically, belligerently nationalistic, while Chinese are up-and-comingly jingoistic too – one of my uncles used to respond to any criticism of Chinese culture with “How DARE they insult our China?!” And even if he often said this jokingly, the sentiment was definitely there.

In any case, the Janissary Incident so disgusted me that I told myself I wouldn’t become an ardent, jingoistic nationalist. These are people, I told myself, who have so little going for them in their lives that all they can cling onto for any kind of hope is their national identity – in other words, something they had done nothing to earn.

But…

…wait…

…doesn’t that kind of sound like the gospel? Doesn’t the straw man wretch described above actually completely fit every Christian’s spiritual poverty? – minus of course the national identity bit. Maybe the jingoists aren’t so awful then, since they’ve hit rock bottom like all mature Christians – it’s just that they’ve turned from there to an untrustworthy saviour, and received an untrustworthy, unearned identity, whereas Christian have found the trustworthy saviour, and received a trustworthy, but still unearned, identity.

But do Christians live differently from the jingoists? In the past we definitely haven’t (Church and jingoistic state often went hand in hand), though popular sentiment runs these days that it’s fine mocking Christians because we don’t fight back. But if not as a community, I and many brothers and sisters are guilty of this on a personal level – we weaponise the gospel, just as the jingoists weaponise their ethnicity. What we have that the outsiders don’t have, what we didn’t earn and can’t be taken from us – we often don’t use it to help outsiders, bring them in, show them truth and joy. No, we weaponise it, we use it to shun, to assert our differences and superiority, we use it to feel better about ourselves because there’s honestly not much to feel good about otherwise. And looking at the debates regarding feminism and the myriads of ostensibly inborn sexual identities asserting themselves in popular culture today – gay, trans, bi, genderfluid, what have you – it seems that many today do indeed turn to sacred, unassailable, and inborn identity for salvation, meaning, and hope. And most of these identities are, unfortunately (including many Christians here) weaponised, jingoistic – assertive, tribal, exclusive in their truth claims (though of course exclusive truth is a cornerstone to the gospel, and must always be).

Now I had mentioned my disdain for the jingoists because I (rather unfairly) thought their pathetic state in life made them turn to jingoism. And what lies then on the other end of the spectrum? I have no figures to back this theory up, but is it possible that the increasingly belligerent assertiveness of these or those identities coincides with an increasing wealth gap? (it is no coincidence that radical Islamism finds easy footholds among disenfranchised youth) Is it possible that we are in fact looking at an age-old dichotomy of works versus faith? We live in an age of billionaires, disgustingly wealthy money launderers, genius tech entrepreneurs, a worryingly saturated job market and an ever-widening wealth gap; is it possible that many are placing their meaning in unearned identities, as a way to feel better about themselves?

Did the old fathers of the faith put their trust and self-meaning in unearned identities?

Cain thought he could please God with the sweat of his brow. Abel knew that he could not, and only the death of an innocent lamb in his place could make him acceptable to God.

God’s people in Samuel’s time wanted to earn their place in the world, through military might. Samuel knew that they had well and truly forgotten their identity as the beloved people of the heavenly King.

The Pharisees wanted to please God through the rituals they performed, and through forcing this burden of doing onto God’s people. Jesus knew that everything a man did, even the very state he was in, was fatally sinful; only a new, unearned identity, bought with his blood, would please God.

And in the days of James, brother of Jesus, wasn’t there the popular refrain, ‘You have faith, I have works’?

Plus didn’t Rachel Dawes and Batman argue about this?

Things look slightly different today, but I’d argue the ancient paradigm is still here: we still live with Adam’s curse, trying to find hope in a broken world, find meaning, salvation, joy – some of us try to do this through achievements and deeds, through the sweat of our brow, through knowledge, through doing and saying things that make us better and smarter than the unwashed masses; others try to do this through looking at who we are, and finding meaning and fulfillment there. Now deeds alone are still just as dead as ever, just as dead as they were in the days of Cain, but modern and postmodern faith has gone into some pretty odd places. We boast and brag, we assert ourselves, we weaponise who we are, we stake our self-meaning and salvation on the trivial (jingoists, you realise some of your countries are less than a century old? And that what you think you know about your history is often a mix of folk myth, disinformation and dodgy historiography?) and the poorly understood (we are still in the infancy of our psychological and social understanding of trans, bi and even gay sexuality, though the latter has been long observed).

The burden of the Church is to show a model of giving up finding hope in the kind of people we are and what we do, and instead pursuing and glorying in the one, true, unearned identity; of finding meaning and hope there, and in nothing else, no other identities, no deeds. We can’t be like the jingoists. And we sure as hell can’t be like the Pharisees. Deeds without faith is dead. Faith without deeds is dead. Misplaced faith, deeds or no, manifesting itself in tribal assertiveness, is also dead. This struggle is still going on. And the Church needs to show the way.

What does that look like? I don’t know, but I’ll start by not cussing out outsiders.

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